Age of Phone Research Returns – A NEW Golden Age?

By Bruce Olson, Managing Partner

Some say the “golden age” of internet-based research is over, but actually, it may be just beginning.

If you were part of the market research industry as we entered this new century, you likely remember it as the beginning of a golden age. No longer were we constrained by the brevity landline phone interviews required. We could create lengthier online surveys with complicated choice models optimized for larger viewing screens. We could use longer attribute batteries and increase survey length, all at lower costs and faster speeds.

For many years, we really could have it better, faster and cheaper!

It’s clear that that golden age has passed … and now it seems that we’re back in the phone age. BUT, this new phone age is MOBILE – rather than dialing landlines again, we are dialing in to consumers’ increasing reliance on their mobile devices as a primary screen. According to a Pew Research Center study on Technology Device Ownership, smart phone ownership nearly caught-up to desktop/laptop in 2015, and tablet ownership continues to rise.

Transitioning to mobile means that screen real estate for survey material will continue to get smaller, and not just due to millennials.   According to Pew, “Smartphone ownership is nearing the saturation point for several groups (86% for 18-29, 83% for 30-49+, and 87% for HH w/$75K+ incomes), and this is paired with a decline in larger screens (a 10% decline, from 88% to 78%, in computer ownership in these age groups from 2010 to 2015).

This shift in primary (or only) device has implications for how we design surveys to ensure they are engaging and – at a basic level – readable for respondents.

The rules from our landline days are now applicable again:

Pre-test the survey. If the interview is painful for you to get through, consider shortening.

“Interviewer” style matters. Well-written, engaging surveys are more likely to be completed.

Attention spans are short (7-10 min max), you will have drop off for longer surveys…just like via landline.

Watch for non-response bias. Akin to landline refusals, a respondent is likely to drop out if a survey is not immediately recognizable as mobile-friendly.

The industry has been slow to recognize what we at MMR believe, that the key to doing better research is to focus less on WHAT our clients want to know and more on WHY they want to know it.

Designing surveys to be mobile-friendly, thereby forcing us to be brief and focused, will make online survey research (and researchers) better in the long run.  We will have to identify the critical questions and push back harder on the “one more, nice to know” questions, which means disciplining ourselves to be more assertive and dig deeper into the impact (the business decision to be made / hypothesis to be addressed) from the beginning.


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